Tributes to Bill McLaren

Tributes to Bill McLaren

South of Scotland v Barbarians - 11th October 2011 Click here for more photos Bill McLaren Tribute Night at Murrayfield - 11th March 2010 Click here for more photos Bill McLaren Tribute Night at Mansfield Park- 19th February 2010 Click here for more photos

Barry John

Wales legend Barry John has given a fascinating insight into what made Bill McLaren tick - and he believes we will never see or hear a commentator quite as good as the voice of rugby on our TV screens or radio sets again.

The legendary commentator, who retired in 2002 after almost 50 years as a broadcaster, died in 2010 at the age of 86. Wales on Sunday columnist Barry worked side by side with McLaren as his co-commentator during the memorable 1995 World Cup tournament in South Africa. He says seeing him at work close up was one of the greatest privileges he has had in his many years as a player and pundit. Barry says he was privileged to be able to call McLaren a friend. Here is his tribute:

While I'm saddened by what happened last week, I can't say I'm overly-surprised judging by recent reports we had been hearing about Bill. He will be missed so much in the worlds of rugby union and broadcasting. He was, quite simply, the best. Bar none. Not just in terms of rugby commentary, but in any sport you could wish to mention.

Bill entered people's spirits with the fun approach he had to commentary and the way in which he always conveyed his message.

I was very lucky to have spent many hours in his company, at parties, dinner functions, other social events... but above anything at the 1995 World Cup when we were co commentators. Remember, ITV had the TV rights to the tournament, not the Beeb. But it says everything about the integrity and honesty of Bill that he turned down ITV's offer to lead their commentary set-up and chose instead to work for BBC Radio. Myself, Ian Robertson and Bill fronted up the Radio Five commentary on that tournament and it was one of the most cherished six-week periods I can remember.

Even though Bill was clearly the main man, he never sought the limelight and was always happy to push others forward instead. An example of this was at the opening ceremony, when the hosts South Africa were playing the World Cup holders Australia in Cape Town. I was describing the moment when Nelson Mandela came out onto the pitch to meet the teams, five years after his release from jail just across the water. I could hear the producers from London saying in my cans, "Please hand over to Bill". But as I offered him the microphone, Bill shook his head. He said, "No Barry, you're doing a great job describing this historical moment. Carry on". That was Bill for you, selfless.

Unflustered, too. I recall the semi-final in Kings Park, Durban, between South Africa and France that had to be delayed for 90 minutes because of a torrential downpour. The pitch was like a lake and we thought there was no way the match could go ahead, only for an army of volunteers to literally sweep the rain off with brushes. We had to fill more and more air time with rugby chit-chat, yet at no stage did Bill panic or become flustered. He was the ultimate professional, cool and calm, even when London called again to tell us they were running out of satellite time and might have to abandon the commentary. Bill turned to me and said, "Don't worry Barry, they wouldn't dare do that to us". The commentary duly went ahead and it was a magnificent game.

When I used to go to rugby stadiums with Bill, I would get recognised and asked for my autograph. But it was nothing compared to Bill. People were delighted to see him and I always had to play second fiddle. I was in his slipstream.

I also recall the night at the Dorchester in London when Bill became the first non rugby international to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. I was given the supreme honour of saying a few words to give Bill his honour. The great and the good of rugby were there: Gareth Edwards, New Zealand legend Colin Meads, Ireland's greatest Mike Gibson. None of them were going to miss this special moment for Bill, they each wanted to pay tribute to him.

There was also the time, shortly after I retired from rugby, when I co-ordinated a Christmas book, asking the likes of Richard Burton, Gareth and George Best to pen chapters. Bill also wrote a chapter about commentary. It was amazing, he was an amazing man. His attention to detail was incredible and he put together these charts with various colour schemes. Worthless to anyone else, but they told Bill anything he needed to know about an individual player.

Let me tell you about his pre-match routine the night before a game. Bill would get a pack of cards and make up numbers one to 15 from a particular set. If Wales were playing, he would use diamonds. Ace was one, the jack was 11, the queen 12, king 13 and the jokers would make up 14 and 15. He would shuffle the cards and randomly turn them over. If six came up, he would recite the name of that player, which club he played for, where he was from, how many caps he had. Once he had mastered one team, he would take a set of clubs and do likewise with the other side. Bill would not go to bed until he had mastered the two teams. That homework he put in behind the scenes was why he never made a mistake in broadcast.

He was the best. Full stop.

Nick Heath

"Simon Geoghegan: he's all arms and legs this fella, like an octopus."

No one has since found a more accurate description of the Irish winger. The truest testament of any commentator in their chosen sport is when their vocal talents are known, remarked upon and moreover celebrated by people whose interest in the sport is at best passing. Bill McLaren, who has sadly just died at 86, was one such man. There is no doubt in my mind that my ambition to become a sports commentator comes directly from my days growing up listening to "the voice of rugby".

Just as Murray Walker will always be synonymous with F1, Dan Maskell was to Wimbledon and Peter O'Sullevan was to horse racing, watching rugby to the sound of Bill McLaren was the only way it should be.

I recall a behind-the-scenes item that Grandstand featured one Saturday during the old Five Nations. They followed a "Day In The Life" of Bill as he began his journey from his home town of Hawick in Scotland, to Murrayfield for another dramatic Calcutta Cup match.

In preparation at home, he had in front of him a handwritten graph, bigger than a 1000 piece jigsaw, with almost as many separate parts. Name, position, club, caps, tries scored, wife, children, the list of detail was endless. It ensured that at any given moment during the game, Bill was well prepared to drip feed extra information through, so as to give the viewer a fuller picture of the team and its players.

A further strength of Bill's, and this is perhaps why he attracted wider appeal, was his ability to make the sport feel inclusive to all. Have you ever tried explaining the game to a novice in the pub? Bill was adept at explaining what to look out for and the turns of skill to enjoy. Even if you were unclear of the rules, Bill would made sure you had something to appreciate. In doing so, he was also able to allow his natural Scottish brogue to roam freely amongst a myriad of phrases that have become legendary to this day.

"Up here the ball flies like an artillery shell." (on commentating at altitude).

"There'll be dancing in the streets of Edinburgh/Hawick/Selkirk tonight!"

"That one was a bit inebriated - just like one of my golf shots." A description of a missed goal kick.

I am thankful to Bill McLaren for all the years of making a dull game bearable, an average game great, and a great game greater. To have lived through an era where he had the mic was a privilege indeed.

Rest in peace Bill.

Peter Bills: Belfast Telegraph

Bill McLaren died this week and the world of rugby lost one of its greatest men.

The great man of Hawick, who passed away at the age of 86, had declined in recent years under the grim influence of dementia. In the end, he could tell you intricate details of what had gone on 66 years earlier on the slopes of Monte Cassino, Italy, where he had helped fight the German menace. But he wasn't too sure about who he was and what he'd done for a living. That, alas, is a classic trait of dementia.

But we shouldn't dwell on the end or the sad loss of his memory, even though it had been so sharp and impressive throughout his working years. Instead, focus on a great and glorious career, one in which he created a fantasy in his youth and then remarkably brought it to reality in his working life. Sitting on the fence near his home in the Scottish Borders, a young Bill McLaren's favourite form of relaxation was watching his pals playing an impromptu game of rugby or football . . . whilst he commentated upon it. Of course, he never dreamed he would make it his living, although he was also, of course, a much respected schoolteacher. But a couple of chance meetings, a hastily arranged interview and trial with the BBC in Scotland and, hey presto, a legend was born. This was the beginning of a man who was to enchant listeners and television viewers the world over with his unique brand of commentating.

During the time we were working together on his autobiography, I once asked him why he'd first come up with some of those unique phrases - such as "he's like a slippery eel in the bag' or "he's like a weasel up a pair of trousers'. Then there was the famous one, "they'll be celebrating in the streets of Hawick/Edinburgh/Pontypool/Cardiff (delete as appropriate) tonight'... For a moment, he looked nonplussed. "Well I suppose they just sort of formed in my mind and came out through watching these players," he said. It was a good enough explanation.

Of course, as he became increasingly famous, the world and his wife wanted a slice of Bill McLaren. He'd be inundated with requests to open fetes, give speeches, attend dinners and be the star guest. And 99.9% of them he turned down mainly for two reasons: he was born and remained a quiet, shy man; and, secondly, he hated being away from his beloved wife Bette, even for a single day or night.

The rugby world may have made a growing fuss of him, turning a humble Scotsman into something more resembling a folk hero. But that was the rugby world's decision - Bill didn't see why he should join such a daft crusade. He was always happiest at home, with Bette, pottering about, preparing for the next match. He didn't ask for a lot out of life and didn't expect all the fuss and adulation that came his way.

And, supreme irony of all ironies, the greatest love of his life was not rugby football (although for sure he was very keen on it). No, Bette, the young woman who had helped nurse him back towards life when he thought he was sure to die of tuberculosis in the years just after the war, was Bill McLaren's greatest love. He adored her and she him. They made the most wonderful couple, perfectly complementing each other and understanding the other's needs and traits.

There was always a smile, a ready quip on Bill's lips. And those famous phrases were never far away, either. When I rang him up and said we'd had a good offer for his autobiography which I was to write with him, he expressed amazement that anyone would want to see another book about him. Then he hesitated, as if not sure whether he should ask the next question. "Can I ask you if it would be worth much at all,' he said, almost coughing in embarrassment. When I told him the offer, he said "Goodness me, you could buy half a submarine for that amount." Where that one came from, I have not the slightest idea... As we worked on the book, I think I came to understand just why this man had become so hugely popular in the game. It wasn't just his unique turn of phrases or that wonderful Scottish burr that made him so widely revered and admired - I think it was because he was such a marvellously humble human being. There wasn't an ounce of conceit or stuffiness about him, as you detect among so many people who work in TV these days.

The last time I saw him, I drove down to Hawick to share coffee with him and Bette on the morning of a Scottish international in Edinburgh. Already, the signs were there that his memory was failing. Yet he remained the great warm, whole hearted human being he always was, enquiring and concerned about others, far more than himself.

"But why have you come all this way," he asked me.

"To see you and Bette," I replied.

He shook his head in amazement. But then, such a self effacing attitude had been one of the hallmarks of his entire life.

Rest in Peace, Bill, and thank you just for being the person you were. We'll never forget.

Alex Salmond: Scottish First Minister

The world of sport and broadcasting has lost a true legend with the passing of Bill McLaren. He thoroughly deserved the title "voice of rugby" and was a fantastic ambassador for Scotland and his native Hawick right around the world. His contribution to the sport of rugby cannot be over-stated.

Only illness prevented him fulfilling his dream of playing for Scotland. But in his many years as a PE teacher in the home town he loved, he developed and nurtured a host of talented youngsters who went on to represent their country. And proudly but impartially commentated on their achievements from the commentary box was Bill McLaren.

His famously descriptive commentaries brought a joy and understanding of the game to rugby fans and less-knowledgeable viewers that few others have ever managed. My thoughts are with his family at this sad time.

Delme Parfitt, Wales On Sunday

"YES laddy, why not."

I can still remember the relief I felt at hearing that kindly Scottish tone from the other end of the telephone.

I'd been working not two weeks as a young thruster on the sports desk at the South Wales Echo when I was charged with the task of delivering a big interview with Bill McLaren. He didn't know me from Adam of course, but after a brief 30 seconds or so of nervously explaining who I was and what I wanted, the voice of rugby dived in and came to my rescue. On the eve of the 1999 World Cup, could we talk about his life and times, I had asked.

"Yes laddy, why not."

And so from tales of how he would commentate on matches he himself played in as a kid on the streets of Hawick, to where he thought the sport was heading on the eve of the new millennium, I got more than I could have dreamed of. Moments later I was punching away at the keyboard and ending my piece with a line I was particularly proud of at the time. After explaining that McLaren had no immediate plans to end his days behind the microphone, my final paragraph read: "There'll be singing in the streets of Hawick about that one!" Unbridled brilliance I'm sure you'll agree, but in fact I was more chuffed by the fact that having admired McLaren's commentary as a kid he was, in real life, every inch the gentleman I had imagined.

Some years later I bought the final autobiography he wrote. The story of his professional career, his service in the armed forces and his insight into rugby from more than half a century of working in the game enthralled me. But it was the part in which he recounts the death from cancer of his eldest daughter Janie which had the greatest effect.

It reduced me to tears. Literally.

From behind every word I could hear McLaren himself talking, and the humility and love of his family that oozed out of every previous chapter magnified tenfold the sadness I felt at his grief.

I suppose it's always fascinating to get to know the person behind what you've always known as just a voice. Then again, so ingrained was McLaren's voice in my upbringing that I always felt as though I kind of knew him anyway. Crowding around the television for Wales internationals as a boy meant listening to his Borders brogue and feeling it was very much part of the package. On the odd occasion Nigel Starmer-Smith took over I felt thoroughly short-changed and would be suspicious of every word the Oxford graduate uttered. It simply wasn't the same.

You see, rightly or wrongly, I was, like thousands of other little Welsh boys, brought up to regard English rugby with nothing other than suspicion and contempt. The equation was simple as far as my father - and thus I myself - was concerned: McLaren was fair (and he was), Starmer-Smith was biased (whether he was or wasn't didn't matter).

When kicking a ball around down the park afterwards, I was the type of whipper-snapper who would think nothing of launching into sporadic commentary as long as I knew there was nobody within earshot. Except I realise now that it wasn't just commentary, it was an impersonation of Bill McLaren. Any description of rugby action not conducted in a Scottish accent lacked credibility in my eyes, even if it was to tell how I'd slotted my third conversion on the trot from fully 10 metres behind the monkey bars, having just deceived three fir trees on my way to the try line.

I was briefly transported back to those halcyon days when I watched a compilation of McLaren's best commentaries on the BBC website this week. Not only did it warm the heart to hear him in his pomp once more, but there was the thrilling nature of what he was relaying as well.

My all-time favourite try in the montage was the "Gerald Davies, what's he doing there?" score of Murrayfield 1977. For those unfamiliar with it, the move is started by Gerald deep in the Welsh half amid a prolonged period of Scottish battering and progresses through Phil Bennett, David Burcher, Steve Fenwick and Bennett again... "oh, this is going to be the try of the championship" concludes McLaren, exuding genuine captivation despite the try coming against his own country. I never tire of watching that piece of footage, even more so now that such footage is virtually the sort that you just don't see any more. It's a product of another time, a time before the constraints of professionalism and over-coaching strangled the derring-do out of the game. But the pictures and the sound seem to belong to one another in a fashion I cannot compare. It's just pure gold, and the marriage of the two will thankfully never be lost to the passage of time. Good job, because in this plastic, multi-channelled, witless age, I don't believe we will ever find a successor to McLaren as the voice of rugby.

Fitting really, because some people just cannot be replaced.

Andrew Logan, Australia

Dear John

You don't know me, I simply obtained your email and details from the Hawick RFC website. I'm not sure if you are the right person to contact, but I wanted to pass on my sincerest condolences on the death of the great Hawick man, Bill McLaren.

I write a rugby column in Australia, and attached is my piece from yesterday on hearing the news of Bill's death. I thought someone from his home club would like to see it, and know that way down here in Australia we were devastated to hear of Bill's passing. He was the voice of rugby for us too as the ABC used to air the 5 Nations regularly on weekends in the old days.

You can see the piece here:

Please pass on my best wishes to Bill's family and friends.

Best regards

Andrew Logan.

Keith Quinn, Rugby presenter from New Zealand

Dear John

We received your contact info from Keith Quinn. No doubt you will be receiving messages from around the globe, but I would be grateful if you could pass on our wishes from Sky Sport New Zealand:

"We at Sky Sport in New Zealand were saddened to hear of the passing of Bill McLaren. New Zealanders have marvelled at the brilliant rugby commentaries from Bill over many years; and we at Sky thoroughly enjoyed Bill's company on the occasions when he worked with us on some of Sky's early rugby fixtures back in the mid-nineties. His great voice, his fantastic depth of knowledge and his wonderful sense of humour were just some of the many attributes that made Bill the iconic man that he was. He leaves a huge gap in the television rugby world, however the contributions he has made to television rugby commentaries will linger on for many years. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the McLaren family.

From the Rugby Production Unit, Sky Network Television, New Zealand 

Duncan Garvie (Chairman) - Poneke Football Club Inc. - Wellington - New Zealand

Dear John

I was saddened to learn of Bill McLaren's departure to the Top Field.

I know he hadn't been so well and I'm sure the recent cold weather didn't encourage him to kick-on a bit longer.

Bill was certainly one of the great characters of our game and an irreplaceable member of the Hawick Rugby community. I am sure all the accolades that he deserved but never sought will be recounted at his funeral service.

On behalf of all the members of the Poneke Football Club we send our sincere condolences to the members of the Hawick Rugby Club and his to his family.

May he rest in peace.

Gus Mackay: Ayr RFC

Dear John

All at Ayr RFC were saddened to hear of the demise of Bill Mclaren, a true rugby legend and total gentleman, Bill will always be remembered around the world as the voice of rugby. Could you please pass on our sincere condolences, first of all, to Betty and family and to all our friends and members at Hawick RFC.

Nigel Coady

This is just a quick note to your club to express my condolences on the passing of the great Bill McLaren. I loved listening to Bill's commentaries, he was, for me, the voice of Rugby Football, as I heard him call it many times.

Hopefully the BBC will re-show the excellent documentary from a few years ago.

He will live with me forever, heaven has a new voice. God Bless you Bill, thanks for the memories.

Rob Rowley: Leicester Tigers supporter.

You have lost a great icon of rugby, Bill was simply the best commentator of any sport any where in the world that I have ever heard. It was a privilege to have listened to him.

The Trivett family: Rhondda Valley, Porth, Wales

We send our very deepest sympathy to all members of Hawick Rugby Club on the very sad death of Mr. Bill Mclaren. How we in Wales loved to hear him from the old Arms Park ground. We always felt that there was a little bit of Scottish blood in us all. He was as well loved in Wales as in his home country.

Howard Thomas

Just a note to say how saddened I am at the passing of Bill McLaren. His commentaries were absolutely brilliant, with his rich, warm voice, his humorous description of events, always backed up by immaculate research into all players will stay with me forever.

I am a long standing Pontypridd Rugby Club fan, and our fans forum on the website is quickly filling with warm tributes to Bill.

For my own part I recall a game between Pontypridd and Glasgow Caledonians in the old Welsh Scottish league around 10 years ago at Sardis Road. Bill was commentating on what I believe was his only visit to the ground, and I was determined to meet him. I scrambled up the stand before kick off, climbed over the barriers to the press area, shook his hand and welcomed him to Pontypridd, I just had to. He was a real gentleman, shook my hand in return and said how happy he was to be at Ponty. There was an extra buzz at the ground that night purely because he was there.

In my view he was streets ahead of all commentators today, and far more humble. We have lost a great man of Hawick, Scotland, Rugby and the World.

I offer my sincere sympathy to all his family on behalf of us here at Pontypridd. May he rest in peace.

Jonathan Lilley: a Wasps member

No doubt along with millions of rugby supporters not only across Britain and the world we are saddened at the death of Bill McLaren. Not only was he the eloquent and knowledgeable voice of rugby but part of a rare breed of BBC commentators (e g John Arlott, Dan Maskell and Peter Aliss) who were highly professional with a common touch.

Bill will be missed.